10 Best Places to Visit on your Cross Country Road Trip
If you follow us on Instagram (@eaarthbonesjewelry), you know I took a COVID safe cross country road trip with my partner this summer. I had a lot of messages about our trip, how we planned it, and how it went. In this blog post, I'm sharing our journey and some planning and travel tips we picked up along the way. I took all of the images on my Pentax with Kodak Portra 400 film. For more images and location tags, check out our permanent stories labeled 'roadtrip' on IG.
10 nights, 80+ hours of driving, 5,000 miles and 12 states.
Nate and I love car trips, driving together, and exploring new places. We started the trip off at 4am to get a head start on our first 12 hour day. We drove through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Chicago (where we stopped for hot dogs at Portillo's, 10/10) and then kept driving until we hit Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
1) Lake Geneva, WI
Our first night, we stopped at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin and set up camp at Big Foot Beach. We had dinner right off the lake at a socially distanced table right before sunset, then set up our camp site which was about 5 minutes from town. Something we didn't think about was because of COVID, most campsites did not have firewood for sale. This wasn't a big deal to us for most sites, but if you go camping this fall, definitely do your research on fire wood! The next day we woke up early, blew up our new kayaks and took them for a spin on the quiet lake (definitely suggest investing in inflatable kayaks). Before we got back on the road, I found us an amazing coffee shop that was literally my heaven, (they are also a wedding venue!) Boxed and Burlap. After an iced coffee and pastry, we were back on the road for day 2!
2) Des Moines, IA
Although we didn't camp in IA, we would have loved more time in Des Moines! Super cute town with restaurants and breweries (with outdoor seating). We had lunch at Cheese Bar, which we loved! They had outdoor seating, a fabulous happy hour, and the cheese board was amazing! I definitely advise doing your research on places to eat so you don't end up just grabbing fast food because you're hungry.
Tip: How I find fabulous food and coffee places is finding the biggest city/town you're passing, look up places by using words like "cutest" and "best" (hello SEO), and then cross reference your findings with blogs! Places that show up on Google first are sometimes only up there because they pay to be there. People don't write about places on their blogs unless they actually love it!
After lunch, we stopped at a beautiful overlook between Iowa and Nebraska, then we were on the road!
3) Boyd County, NE
While driving from Iowa to Nebraska, we made a few road stops. Nate was determined to find hay bales to play on (so we did) and we stretched our legs. We were trying to beat a storm once we were in Nebraska, but obviously had to stop and run up a hill for a beautiful Nebraska view. This was honestly one of our favorite moments of the trip because it was so road trippy. We were fine setting up our campsite in the dark a few nights, so we didn't feel like we had to rush to our campsites. We also loved the element of surprise waking up in a place not knowing what it would look like!
We chose a campsite in Boyd County, NE because it is a zone completely unaffected by light pollution. There's only a few of these zones on our country's map which means the stars are epically bright! Nate reserved a HIP camp (basically camping on someone's property) which was definitely an experience. It was raining BUCKETS by the time we got to Boyd County and since Nebraska is so flat, we could see all of the thunder and lightning cracking which was TERRIFYING! Living on the East Coast my whole life, if you could see lightning like we did in Nebraska, it would mean it was actually really close! Pair buckets of rain, with intense lightning, and cue turning on non-paved roads and hydroplaning. Nate tried to keep me calm by singing to me (adorable), but needless to say, I kept my eyes closed until we got to our campsite. I knew we'd be okay because Jeep life but it was wild! We set up our tent in pouring rain with only the lights of my car (remember, black out zone) but we did it! We were bummed we wouldn't see the stars, BUT I woke up around 2am, opened our tent and we was greeted by a blanket of stunning stars, so bright I thought I could touch them.
The next morning, Nate made me a wildflower bouquet (who knew the beginning of August was prime wildflower season), we kayaked on our private lake with teeny tiny lily pads, said hi to some Nebraskan cows, then hit the road to South Dakota!
4) South Dakota
Just like Nebraska, South Dakota is very flat. As we were driving to the Badlands, there were huge billboards for a few road side oddities, but for the most part, just flat and farms. We stopped and took pictures at a gorgeous sunflower farm (magical) then continued on! Before we entered the Badlands National Park, we stopped at a gift shop where we were able to FEED THEIR PRAIRIE DOGS! Nate was thrilled and could have gone home happy. *Note: you can only feed the prairie dogs at the gift shop, not in the park.
The Badlands National Park was one of my favorite stops of the entire trip and is a must see! I haven't been to the Grand Canyon yet, but Nate said it was pretty close (a mini version, maybe). Each ring on the canyons showed a different layer, which was created probably thousands of years ago! The Badlands are always eroding and changing, which is so poetic to me! You can camp in the national park but we opted for a day trip. You get a map with check point views all throughout the park! We were on the lookout for all of their wildlife like prairie dogs, pronghorn (looks like antelope), bighorn sheep, snakes and bison. Each stop had its own beautiful energy. I believe the word we used most in the park was "woooooow". We were almost out of the park when we saw a group of cars on the side of the road (usually means there was an animal sighting) so we got out and spotted a single bison coming over the hill. The bison just kept walking up, over the road, and to the other side, completely unfazed by the onlookers. It was such a magical shared experience with all of these strangers, silently taking in this majestic animal.
Once we were out of the Badlands National Park, we drove to Mount Rushmore right before sunset. It was a strange experience, driving up a mountain which was originally a sacred place for Native Americans, turned into billboard America with white mens faces carved into the side of it. On one hand, it was a cool experience seeing something I've learned about my whole life, but on the other hand feeling the energy of stolen land from the Native American people. It was a meditative experience that left me unsettled and saddened for our country.
Again, we set up camp in the dark on Horse Thief Lake in the Black Hills and had hot dogs for dinner by the fire. The next morning, Nate woke me up for a sunrise kayak ride around the lake. Some of my favorite and relaxing moments were enjoying our mornings on the water. After a lazy morning, we hiked the gorgeous Cathedral Spires Trail. It wasn't super long but a lot of uphill trekking, which was perfect before a long day in the car.
5) Redstone, CO
To get from South Dakota to Colorado, we drove through, what seemed like, the whole state of flat, flat Wyoming. Absolutely nothing of consequence in this state, so I napped most of the way (thanks Nate for driving!). Once we got to Boulder, CO for the night, I was super affected by altitude sickness. Fun fact about me, I have asthma, so I don't do the best in high altitudes.
Tip: Drink a lot of water before and during your stay in Colorado. Like water bottle always in hand, chugging water kind of hydrating. We also got oxygen tanks, which are science's gift to this world. They also have oxygenated, flavored water which was wonderful. Also, one drink in Colorado's altitude is like 3 or 4 if you're not used to it so beware!
The next day we drove to Avalanche Ranch to enjoy their hot springs for Nate's birthday! If you haven't enjoyed hot springs before, put it on the bucket list! This was my first hot springs experience, and I loved it! It's not only natural hot tubs but filled with amazing minerals that help your skin and with sleep! We stayed in an adorable little cabin overlooking the mountains with fabulous towns for shopping and eating nearby!
We spent 2 days at the hot springs then headed back down the mountain and on to Kansas! Another quick tip..don't sleep on the food chain Del Taco! There aren't any on the East Coast so we were excited to try and let me tell you, so much better than Taco Bell, THERE I SAID IT!
6) Lake Wilson State Park, KS
We were finally, slowly, on our way back home!
We spent all day driving and got to our next destination, Lake Wilson State Park in Kansas at night. It was midnight by the time we turned into the park and of course we were pulled over for driving about 5 miles over the speed limit. Along with "speeding", no turn signal on an empty road, and Nate's missing at the moment wallet, we thought we were toast. We were lucky and acknowledged our privilege when the officer let us go on a warning, but it was a good learning lesson to follow the law to a T in small towns.
Again, we set up our tent by the light of the Jeep, but we were right on the water, feeling the cool breeze and calm, so we pulled our chairs out and enjoyed a few moments of the night. The next morning, we woke up with the sun shining and gorgeous views. We pulled out our kayaks for a little swim and were told about a little bluff we could jump off of around the corner. Another magical morning, Nate said this was our favorite campsite. If you're ever driving through Kansas, we definitely suggest a stay at Lake Wilson State Park.
7) Tulsa, OK & Ozark, AK
Next, we drove through Oklahoma, and stopped in Tulsa, had our picture taken at the "Center of the Universe", an acoustic anomaly, grabbed a donut at Hurts Donut, then kept driving to Arkansas. For lunch, I found us an adorable farm to table cafe called The Root with fabulous food and coffee. We also bought mimosas to go for the next day! After lunch we were off to our campsite in the Ozarks, AK.
Let me tell you about the Ozarks, AK. It is not where The Ozarks, the show, takes place. If you want to go there, which is where I thought we were going, you'll want Lake of the Ozarks. The Ozarks covers a significant part of norther Arkansas (where we were) and most of the southern half of Missouri (where I thought we were going).
Learn from our mistakes. It was still pretty though!
The next day we were off to Tennessee! We stopped at Graceland in Memphis, but they closed their gates about 30 minutes before we got there (we still got to sign the gate!) and then grabbed amazing bbq at Central BBQ. 100% suggest this stop! I got the ribs and Nate got brisket. 10/10 recommend.
After a few more hours, we arrived at our campsite at Mousetail Landing State Park. Absolutely stunning, but there was absolutely no one camping on our grounds. I kept wigging us out because it was just a touch creepy at night, but we ended up being perfectly safe. The next morning, you guessed it, we got our kayaks out one more time, filled our cups with mimosas, and chilled on the water for an hour. We packed up our campsite for the last time, and headed out to visit Jack Daniel's Distillery.
We felt extremely safe on our Jack Daniel's tour. They checked our temps at the door, we had to wear our masks, and we each had our own socially distanced table during our tasting. We grabbed lunch in (the only) nearby town then hit the road to Asheville!
9) Asheville, SC
I can not emphasize this enough. On your last night of your road trip, treat yourself to some luxury. Book a cabin, book a room, book a massage. Whatever relaxes you, do it! We found an amazing cabin on VRBO called Cabins of Asheville. It was a little area tucked in the mountains filled with private, tiny little cabins, perfect for 2 people. Again, we were caught in the rain and there were a lot of steep hills to get to the cabin, but it was well worth it! The height of luxury for us is a hot tub with a view, which is exactly what we got! Our cabin was adorable, the front porch was lovely, and there was a shower!!! Yes, we could have used the showers at our campsites but honestly, ew, so a clean shower was amazing.
Tip: Before getting to your cabin, pick up fancy cheese, wine, chocolate, breakfast and coffee from the local store. Not having to worry about dinner or breakfast and just relaxing is the key here.
The next day we hit Hillman Beer for lunch, which had great outdoor seating, then headed over to Downtown Asheville, walked around a bit, then headed out! We'd been to Asheville before so we didn't feel pressure to see too much, but if you've never been, I'd suggest a whole day! Last time we went, we did a brewery tour. There are so many amazing breweries and eateries that have a lot of outdoor seating!
10) Shenandoah National Park
From Asheville, we decided to take a mini detour and try to catch Skyline Drive for sunset! I had never been, but Nate said we had to see Skyline Drive. Let me tell you, it's stunning! We're definitely going back this fall for some camping! We caught an amazing cotton candy sunset which was the perfect ending to our road trip. We had just a few more hours left until we reached home, exhausted and happy!
If you're looking for more pictures and tagged locations, check out our permanent story "road trip" on Instagram @eaarthbonesjewelry.
Road Trip Planning Tips:
-plan your trip around National State Parks and places off your bucket list and then connect the dots.
-if going with someone, divide the tasks so it's not overwhelming (Nate planned camping spots and I planned coffee shops/food)
-plan your route, but be flexible to stop whenever you want and detour. adventure is the best part of a road trip!
-try planning max 8 hour driving days. we had two 12 hour days and I wouldn't suggest that for everyone. we didn't hate it but it was a lot.
-wear your mask, even if people look at you funny. get tested when you get home so you know you're in the clear!
-find campsites by the water and bring kayaks! camping in the summer is so much cooler by water.
-bring a million blankets and pillows to build a comfy nest in your tent and be comfy in the car. nothing's worse than sleeping on rocks.
-bring an easy to set up tent. nothing's worse than fumbling in the dark with a difficult tent.
-you don't need to bring food for every day, but bring a cooler! you can always buy ice, drinks, water, and food on the road!
-pack a pocket rocket, something to boil water in and travel mugs. nothing's better than waking up to fresh coffee or tea in the morning!
-bring a reusable water bottle. save on plastic and you can just keep refilling from a big jug.
-bring toilet paper and body wipes. crucial.
-buy national park guest passes for the year! it'll save you so much money! we got our moneys worth from our passes before we even went on our road trip.
(All images © Rachel V King Lifestyle, Kodak Portra 400 film)